Child health

‘Fortune-telling’ test strip based on new research could make bottle rot a thing of the past, Chinese scientists say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 7:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2018, 6:04pm

For many parents, it sounds like a nightmare scenario: waking up one morning to find their toddler’s teeth and gums beset by decay.

Known as early childhood caries (ECC) or simply bottle rot, the discovery of this surprisingly common, and often preventable, bacterial infection is usually followed by a quick trip to the dentist’s – to little or no avail. 

If the caries test strips can be produced at low cost, they could be purchased by parents over the counter so the tests could be carried out regularly at home
Professor Xu Jian

But now scientists from China claim to have found a way to predict the likelihood of the infection occurring with an accuracy rate as high as 81 per cent. 

This could lead to the development in the future of a test strip for ease of use by parents, according to Professor Xu Jian, lead scientist of the study.

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This would give them “a reliable warning and sufficient time to take precautionary measures before visible damage occurs," Xu said.

ECC affects up to 70 per cent of children in rural parts of the US and is a menace for families, especially underprivileged ones, in various countries around the world. It can be painful and cause permanent damage to the child’s oral health. 

Worryingly, once the decay starts, it can only be stopped, not reversed. It is believed to be an infectious and transmissible disease.

Xu, who works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology in East China’s Shandong province, said their research aimed to eliminate the disease among young patients. 

"If the caries test strips can be produced at low cost, they could be purchased by parents over the counter so the tests could be carried out regularly at home,” he said.

This would “spare children the fear and anxiety of dental visits,” he added.

Like a palm-reading fortune teller, the test strip would read the composition of colonies of microorganisms to tell the fate of the subject’s teeth. 

Xu's team discovered that the composition of bacteria residing in a child’s mouth changed as the subject aged. On healthy teeth, the pattern of germ colonies “aged” at the same pace as the child. 

But in the event a tooth was about to decay, the colonies stopped ageing – a turning point that could be detected by the test strips. Different strips would be needed depending on the age of the child.

Together with researchers from Sun yet-sen University in Guangzhou, in South China’s Guangdong province, and the University of California in San Diego, Xu's team tested their theory and technology on 50 four-year-old volunteers. The results were promising. 

Their findings were detailed in a paper in Cell Host and Microbe, which was published on Wednesday. 

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Over the years, researchers have developed a number of methods to predict the onset of ECC, such as an oral bacteria count, a chemical analysis of saliva, and questionnaires to determine a person’s dental care habits. 

But Xu said the new method is among the simplest and quickest. 

A bacteria count and chemical analysis can be a lengthy process that requires the collaboration of professional technicians and sophisticated hardware. There is also a potential problem with questionnaires as their evaluation can be subjective. 

"The biggest challenge is finding the specific microbiota dynamics linked to caries,” said Xu. Microbiota refers to a cluster of microorganisms that typically inhabit one body part. 

“There are so many bacterial colonies in mouth, and it took us five years to find these 'fortune tellers'," he added. 

Jane Wang, a dentist in Beijing, said a caries test strip does not yet exist on the market

If the new discovery could find its way into commercial production, it would be “great news” for many families around the world, she said. 

But she said the study first needed to be broadened to a wider range of volunteers to ensure the results were fair.

"The volunteers may have come from the same region, and their dental microorganisms could have been affected by the local food and water," she said.

"Further studies involving a larger sample, with children from different regions, may be necessary to evaluate the full potential of this method."